Witness History at the Battle of 1797 Reenactment
Did you hear? The British are attacking Old San Juan! Well … OK … not really.
But the British Navy, under orders given by the Sir Ralph Abercrombie, really did attack the Port of San Juan back in 1797. And, to commemorate that event, a reenactment is held each year in Old San Juan, usually on the last weekend of April.
This year, the 8th annual reenactment will be held April 26 to 28, 2013.
We have attended this event for the past couple of years, and it was really neat! Even if you have been to El Morro or Fort San Cristobal before, a visit during the reenactment weekend is really worth it. The men (and women) in uniforms and clothing of the period, following the customs of the period, walking around the forts, firing their weapons, and marching in formation really bring the forts alive. You can get great photos, but really, the best part of this reenactment is talking to the people involved in the reenactment.
Since Puerto Rico was situated in a prime location between the riches of the New World and the homeports of the Old World, many countries wanted the island for their own.
The British made three attempts to take Puerto Rico. The final attempt was in April of 1797. The attack was led by Sir Ralph Abercrombie for the land forces, along with Admiral Henry Harvey for the naval forces. Together, they led a formidable military contingent of more than 4000 (or up to 12,000 depending on which reference you use) British forces.
A little bit of trivia I got from talking to the soldiers at the reenactment is that the British forces consisted of British solders, and people of other nationalities who were under the British empire at the time — such as the Royal Highlanders of the 42nd Regiment (who were Scottish) and some German mercenaries.
Their attacks were met by the much smaller Spanish/Puerto Rican contingency, made up of Spanish soldiers, members of the Puerto Rican Fixed Regiment, some free black militia and other citizens, all under the direction of Governor Ramón de Castro. Another piece of trivia I picked up was that there were also French soldiers fighting on the side of Spain.
With the protection of the massive walls and fire power at El Morro, the British ships were stuck — they couldn’t get close enough to do any damage or seize the forts, nor were they able to send supplies to their ground troops. Also, due to the strategic locations of Fort San Geronomo and Fort San Antonio, the attacking grounds troops were unable to get the better of the small but tenacious Puerto Rican militia. In the end, the British retreated after only 14 days of battle.
Every year, in April, the 1797 British Attack on San Juan is commemorated with military drills, firing demonstrations and educational programs. Many local, Puerto Rican living-history volunteers (reenactors) from the Fixed Regiment of Puerto Rico, and many others from all over the US, Canada and Spain, come to help bring the past alive.
There are a variety of activities scheduled during the 3-day event, including canon or musket firings, military drills, and an encampment set up on the lawn outside of El Morro. And, of course, there are plenty of reenactors wandering around that you can talk to and pose with for photos.
The Fixed Regiment of Puerto Rico is commanded by Lt Colonel Hector Diaz. This regiment of living history volunteers is impressive (you will occasionally see them participating in other activities at the forts). They will be dressed in white linen uniforms made to 18th century Spanish military code.
The volunteers of other nationalities are also dressed in the uniforms of their respective regiments/contigents from that time period. There are even women with them and other living history volunteers, dressed in period clothing as nurses, wives or just regular citizens. We even met a nice Spanish pirate (or "privateer" as he prefered to be called!).
We spent much of the afternoon speaking with a number of the "soldiers" or militia reenactors, and learned a lot of history about the attack on San Juan, their regiments, their real lives, and past living-history reenactments. These volunteers are really into it, and they love to have their pictures taken in uniform. It’s the volunteers that really made this a great event. I strongly recommend that, if you are in Puerto Rico during this time, you come into Old San Juan and see it for yourself.
Now, I do have to mention that the day was a bit unorganized. There is a listed schedule of events for each day. But, instead of a rigid schedule, you need to think of it as a list of activities that may or may not occur at some time throughout the weekend. You really just need to hang around and wait and see. Even with the wait, I still enjoyed myself very much. Since we had some free time waiting between the events, we used the time to learn something, meet a bunch of nice people, and we take some nice photos/videos.
Living History Volunteers — A Call for Participants
This is a call for participation to all you living history volunteers out there. You know who you are. It’s you folks that make events like these so enjoyable!
We went to the reenactment on a Friday and there were maybe 35 reenactors. The British troops were sorely under-represented! On Saturday, there were more people on all sides — but the more the merrier!
We spoke with a number of the volunteers, and here are some of their comments:
- Most of them did not know much about Puerto Rico (except some of the bad press that the island gets), so many of their regiments did not make the trip. But everyone we spoke to was impressed by their time here and the beauty of the island. Many were already planning to return next year or even extend their trips. So all you living history volunteers — come on down. You will be pleasantly surprised!
- They also said that it is REALLY HOT here. Yes, even in April. Be ready for 85°F (in the shade) and 80% humidity (or more). But, on the bright side, there is usually a breeze at the forts.
- In 2010, the National Park Service was in charge of running the reenactment. Because it is held at a US Federal Park, there are strict rules for firing weapons, which the reenactors were not used to and felt were too strict.
- They said they were treated very well — including pickups from the airport, a free air conditioned place to sleep at the Ballajá military barracks, meals and a small daily stipend.
- The "schedule" was a bit loosey-goosey. The guys we talked to said that it was like being in the army — hurry up and wait. But, other than being hot, they all seemed to really be enjoying themselves.
The posted schedule of events is
- Friday, April 26 @ 9am to 3pm
Day trip to Hacienda Esperanza and reenactment of the British landing at Cangrejos.
- Friday, April 26 @ 7:30pm
Reenactment of the legend of La Rogativa at the Catedral de San Juan, followed by a reenacted battle at the Paseo de La Princesa and the Puerta de San Juan
- Saturday, April 27 @ 9am to 4:30pm
1797 Defense of San Juan Diorama in the El Morro Esplanade Camp
- Saturday, April 27 @ 9:30am to noon
Infantry drill and demonstration at the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro esplanade of the San Juan National Historic Site
- Saturday, April 27 @ mid-morning
Cavalry units demonstrate 18th century dragoon skills
- Saturday, April 27 @ 2pm to 4:30pm
"Commemoration of the 1797 Defense of San Juan" Drill of an infantry and artillery assault of Castillo San Felipe del Morro
- Saturday, April 27 @ 7:30pm
3D mapped video in the interior patio of the Ballajá Barracks
- Sunday, April 28 @ 1pm to 1:30pm
British assault the Escambron Battery
- Sunday, April 28 @ 1:30pm to 3pm
Battle of San Juan
Living History Volunteers – If you want to participate in this event as a reenactor, you must register with the National Park Service by April 12, 2013. The registration information and forms can be found on the NPS web site.
Use this map to locate places mentioned in this article. You can click on a placemark to view the GPS coordinates for that place.